I’ve been talking back and forth with Mike Conway for a while now. Aside from being a super nice guy, he also happens to be a very talented director, composer, editor, writer and actor. Basically, there’s nothing he can’t do. When I saw his film Terrarium for the first time, I was blown away by what he accomplished on a $27,000 budget. I recently had the chance to interview this highly talented guy, and here’s what he had to say…
What’s your background with filmmaking as far as education? Are you self taught or did you take film / drama classes in school?
Both. I made about 12 short super 8mm films, before starting any production classes in college. Once there, I took Acting, Scriptwriting, telecommunications, theory and 4 years of 8mm and 16mm production. Basically, I decided to make films and school enhanced that.
You made some short films before Terrarium, what did you learn from those that you were able to apply on the set of Terrarium that made the filming go smoother?
I made more than 30 short movies, plus a 70 minute feature, THE BLACK CRYSTAL, on super 8mm. I have to say that you learn much more doing a feature than you do from shorts. With shorts, you can take a nifty idea and shoot it, usually in a couple of locations. You don’t really have to sustain the pace or story. With a feature, you have to keep those ideas going for well over an hour. Easier said than done. Also, you have to have management skills in regards to scheduling, getting locales, division of labor, and keeping actors and crew interested for the duration. It’s not unusual for people to walk away from the project. Of course, there is all the technical knowledge that you learn, as you shoot more movies. Since I do a lot of different tasks, like shooting, editing, setting up lights, etc., I rely heavily on past experience.
How did the idea for Terrarium come about and how long did it take you to go through the scripting process until you were satisfied and decided to move forward with production?
I had the basic idea, since taking care of a friend’s tarantula, in the 80’s. The crickets in that terrarium became my astronauts. I decided to go for it, in 2000. Once I saved up a few thousand bucks, I started writing the script, on and off, for about 3 months. The fact that I took a couple of months break, at the half way point, made the beginning of the movie different from the end. It started out as horror and then became a military style movie. I get really bored, if I stay with one idea for too long.
You constructed a full scale ship’s interior in your back yard for this project. How long did it take to construct and what problems did you run into with it’s construction?
It took 2 months for Paul Folger, Arley Steinbrink and I to build the 64′ fuselage. Things were going fine, until a city building inspector stopped by. I got slapped with a nuisance notice and was ordered to take it down. I stalled long enough to shoot what I needed.
You had an all volunteer cast for this film. How was it to work with these folks?
I also had a volunteer crew, mainly in the guise of then housemate, Paul Folger. Everybody turned out to be great. Meeting Jeff Rivera, who plays Brandon, was a break. He knew several experienced people and brought them to the project. Up until that point, I was using my hotel co-workers to play the captain, doctor, engineer, etc. Since the cast was half made up of friends, and the other half, experienced actors, it was wonderful to see fairly inexperienced people, like my wife, Sheila, holding their own and turning out some nice performances. Having the experienced people, raised the bar, as to what kind of acting that was expected. Because of that, everyone delivered.
Your wife Sheila is in this film as well as being in your short films. Did she have any previous acting experience?
She was in two of my short films, ETERNAL and ROADKILL. Before that, she was a professional chef, who just liked movies. She had no acting experience, whatsoever. I asked her to play a grieving widow, in ETERNAL. One scene called for her to cry, so she really did it. I was blown away by her performance. I knew that I had to put her in more movies.
Your wife was also eight months pregnant during the filming of Terrarium. What special problems did this present and how did you overcome them?
The first half of the film, takes place at the press conference and in the cryotubes, so we don’t see her stomach for those scenes. In the second half, we had her in a baggy flightsuit. I also framed or blocked the scenes, so we wouldn’t see her stomach. For the sniper scene, I dug a round hole in the ground, so she could lay flat. It’s funny to watch the movie, knowing about that, because you start to notice us hiding her stomach.
The effects in any movie as far as make up and special effects have to be really time consuming to put together…
Actually, these were done pretty fast. I used a lot of items, like the gorilla suit and severed limbs from costume shops. I would walk in those places, just to get ideas. However, my friend, Greg Reade, made the creature and alien masks. Those took a while.
Tell us about your first screening of Terrarium and how that evening went. How nervous were you, and how did you feel when you saw the turnout and heard the reactions of people after the movie?
We did a lot of work on a non-functioning theater auditorium. We built a mezzanine, for the video projector and rewired the place for sound. We even repainted the bathrooms. This took all night long. I drove home the next day and almost rolled my motorhome, when I fell asleep at the wheel. Things were so hectic, I didn’t know if we would make it in time to actually screen the movie. The first showing was a press and media screening, for about 150 invited people. It went pretty well. We got our first review, from The Las Vegas Film Society, the next day. They really liked it. That helped us weather some harsher criticism, later on. Now, the first public screening was the real hoot. About 250 people showed up for the premiere show. The audience fed off of each other. There were some jumps and good tense moments. Nice response from everybody.
It had to feel pretty awesome to have professional special effects people like your work so much that they donated their time and efforts to your film. Tell us how that all came together.
Yes, it did feel awesome! After seeing the movie, Chuck Carter (BABYLON 5) contacted me and suggested meeting for lunch. He showed up with PJ Foley (VOYAGER) and a couple of other guys. They said that the movie could use some effects and asked what I wanted. I gave them a list of shots, including a crash sequence. The crash didn’t happen, at that time, because it was too much to come up with, for free. Along with Bart Anderson (ESSENCE OF THE FORCE), they came up with 7 really cool shots. Not a lot, but enough to change the feel of the movie. Very recently, for the 2004 version, I hired another effects man, David Rosler, to add the crash. Someone was interested in buying TERRARIUM, but they wanted something big to happen at the beginning. Rosler did the crash and added several other shots. Now, the movie has about 30 effects shots. Some are downright amazing.
What are your biggest influences and what shows or movies influenced you the most?
I was heavily influenced by the original STAR TREK series. I like horror and sci-fi movies. ALIEN is my favorite. I also love video games. The RESIDENT EVIL series is my favorite. John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock and James Cameron have influenced my directing style. Carpenter, for his scoring and resourcefulness on HALLOWEEN and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hitchcock, for camera tricks and suspense, along with great character interaction. My favorites were NORTH BY NORTHWEST, VERTIGO and PSYCHO. Cameron, for TERMINATOR, T2 and ALIENS, illustrating his intense action style. Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson are also influential for their films, EVIL DEAD 2 and BAD TASTE. EVIL DEAD 2 had the most creative camera work and editing combo that I have ever seen. I could care a less about computer generated LORD OF THE RINGS scenes. BAD TASTE and DEAD ALIVE were feats of physical slapstick, fly by the seat of your pants filmmaking and makeup effects.
Can you actually sit down and watch one of your films and enjoy it just for what it is without constantly thinking about all the things that happened during the filming while you’re watching it?
Yes, ROADKILL. That movie just plain rocks. It’s only 14 minutes, but that’s a perfect length for it. Obviously, I like watching with someone else, but I can still enjoy it, alone. If I don’t see one of my movies for a few months, it’s more intereseting to watch.
What if any new projects do you have in the pipeline right now?
Well, I have a horror idea that I’m conceptualizing, but producer, Kelly Johnston, has sidetracked me into directing his project, first. It’s called THE AWAKENING and is basically a “supergirl goes bad and kills a bunch of soldiers” story. It’s kind of campy, but I think it’s going to be fun. I’ve never directed someone else’s script, but I will be injecting my point of view into it, as well as scoring and editing it.
Ed Wood felt like a little kid getting to play with his heroes when he got to work with people like Kenne Duncan and Bela Lugosi. If you could choose a few actors and / or actresses to work with that would make you feel like that, who would they be?
First, would be Bruce Campbell. Then, I would have to say Malcolm McDowell and Rutger Hauer. Unlike Bruce, these two were stars, who were already at the top of their game, but now do mostly straight to video work. It would be neat to take one of those guys and give them a meaty, credible role.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to anyone wanting to make their first film that’s more important than anything else you could tell them?
Plan on doing more than one. I would tell them not to expect a masterpiece, for a while. That usually takes time. Have fun making your movies, yet give it your best shot, each time. The more you shoot, the more you will improve.
If you’d like to read more about Mike’s film Terrarium or pick up a copy for yourself, you can so so at the Terrarium website.